Christmas in China: A season to shop

Reporting by Wendy Min in Beijing, writing by Dhara Ranasinghe
Christmas cheer spreads to China
Christmas cheer spreads to China

It's not quite Lunar New Year or the Golden Week holiday, but with each year that passes Christmas appears to be gaining ground as a season for shopping and celebration in China.

"We see it as an excuse to get together, go shopping and relax," said Danni Wu, a 24-year old student living in Beijing.

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Christmas is not formally celebrated in China and December 25 is not a public holiday as it is in much of the world, including Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China.

That means it is not a major shopping season in the same way as the Lunar New Year, one of China's biggest holidays, or Golden Week that starts on October 1, China's National Day, and is an important holiday for travel, shopping and dining.

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Still, as a season for shopping, Christmas is gaining traction in China's big cities with many retailers using the opportunity to tap into the growing wealth of consumers in the world's second biggest economy.

"If Starbucks is any indicator, in Beijing, the Starbucks coffee shops began using Christmas themed cups just after Halloween, and before Singles Day," said Clem Miller, an investment strategist at Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors, based in Baltimore, Maryland in the U.S.

November 11 is Singles Day in China; an anti-Valentine's Day to celebrate life as a single person that has evolved into a big day for online shopping and likened to Cyber Monday in the U.S.

(Read more: China's Singles Day could dwarf America's Cyber Monday)

"Culturally, young people in China have always liked to give each other gifts on holidays," said Miller. "Now, with rising disposable income, there is more money to accommodate additional holidays, even those that are nominally Western/Christian in origin."

Tanuj Shori executive director, consumer equity research for Asia ex-Japan at Nomura in Hong Kong, says Christmas is not a holiday season in China so would not be regarded as a key shopping season.

"Compared to 10 years ago, there is Christmas-related sales growth, but that may be limited to Tier-1 or Tier-2 cities as these places have more West-educated individuals," he said, referring to China's big cities that include the capital Beijing and financial hub Shanghai.

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Chinese shoppers spend big on 'Singles Day'
Chinese shoppers spend big on 'Singles Day'

Zoey Wang, a 24-year old government employee, added: "Christmas has nothing to do with Christian values or families getting together…It smells more commercial. It [Christmas] is not rooted in this country, so it has no cultural and traditional meaning to make it official."

Let's shop

If the success of Singles Day is anything to go by, it may not take too long before Christmas as a shopping season becomes a more entrenched trend.

"Christmas is a perfect consuming festival," said Patrick Peng, who works at Xidan Joy City, one of Beijing's biggest shopping centers. "Our department store will prepare fantastic activities for consumers…this year we will prepare a music concert for them."

One bakery in Shanghai told CNBC that they've had their Christmas deals up since November 25.

Xiao li, 19-year old cashier working at one of China's largest bakery chains, Christine, in Shanghai said that "the earlier the special deals, the better the sale."

And if Christmas brings a boost to retail sales, that's likely to be welcomed in Beijing. China's leaders are trying to shift the economy away from investment-led growth to one driven by consumption to put economic growth on a more secure long-term footing.

(Read more: Top 2% of Chinese account for third of world luxury sales)

"For both customers and shop owners, it [Christmas] is a carnival…to stimulate domestic consumption," said Wu in Beijing.

Consumption contributed 45.2 percent to China's economic growth in the first half of 2013, compared with 60.4 percent in the first half of 2012, according to official data and highlighting that the government has a long way to go to achieve its goals.

"The Christmas retail shopping season is still an emergent trend, and is likely to grow bigger and bigger in future years. Consequently, it is an increasingly important feature of China's personal consumption story," said Miller at Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors.

— By CNBC.Com's Dhara Ranasinghe; Follow her on Twitter @DharaCNBC